Indie director Jonathan Parker has a soft spot for the Palm Springs International Film Festival -- and not just because, unlike at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, you can squeeze in a round of golf between screenings and Q&A sessions.
"I think Palm Springs is really a film festival that has changed quite a bit," Parker says of the event, which began two decades ago -- it even featured parties at then-Mayor Sonny Bono's house -- and struggled financially in the late '90s. "It has carved out a niche and aura for itself in the independent film world."
Eight years ago at the fest, Parker screened his film "Bartleby," which starred Crispin Glover. Now, his latest film, "(Untitled)," a savvy comedy starring Adam Goldberg and set in the New York arts scene, is premiering on Friday and Saturday. It is one of 14 world premieres at the 20th edition of the Palm Springs festival, which begins tonight with a black-tie award gala, "opens" on Thursday with a screening of "Last Chance Harvey" and winds up Jan. 19 with a "best of the fest" program. All told, the festival will showcase 210 independent films from 73 countries, with 77 premieres.
The event also has its share of star power, especially for the award gala at the Palm Springs Convention Center. Sean Penn, Dustin Hoffman, the cast of "Revolutionary Road," director Gus Van Sant and composer Alexandre Desplat ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") are among those receiving honors this evening.
But more important, "this is an opportunity for filmgoers to see films that are sometimes difficult to see," says festival programmer Helen du Toit. "Seventy percent of the audience at the festival comes in from out of town. . . . They come to a sunny, warm place and watch films all day."
The atmosphere may be laid-back, but filmmakers such as Parker won't exactly be taking it easy. With the economic crisis, "it's a challenging time to be coming out with an indie film," Parker says. "There is a lot of competition, and it's a tough theatrical market, particularly. But there are a lot of opportunities, and we like to think we have a unique voice."
Though he has a distributor lined up to release "(Untitled)" in the fall, Parker is looking forward to "having other distributors see it at the festival or hear about it at the festival. It's our experience it takes a couple of festivals [for distributors] to hear about a movie."
The Palm Springs festival is a hybrid of new movies, features showcased over the last six to eight months on the festival circuit and movies that have already had theatrical release. For example, the opening film, "Last Chance Harvey," was released Christmas Day. The festival has six programmers who travel to major and smaller film festivals, including those in Cannes and Toronto, looking for productions. "In addition, we have about 600 submissions that come in," says Du Toit.
"We aim to please, we aim for diversity," says festival director Darryl MacDonald. "We rely on the entire world for our programming."
As such, one of the festival's hallmarks is its foreign films: Fifty out of the 67 movies submitted for consideration in the best foreign-language film Oscar category will be shown.
"We bring in an international jury to figure out which films they feel are the strongest contenders," says Du Toit. "A lot of people come to see the foreign-language Oscar submissions. It's another way to see what's happening around the world."
Highlights of the festival include:
"$5 a Day": This charmingly sweet comedy stars Alessandro Nivola as a young man forced to reunite with his dying con-man father, played by Christopher Walken, while on a cross-country road trip. It was directed by Nigel Cole ("Calendar Girls"). (Sunday)
"Alien Trespass": R.W. Goodwin ("The X-Files") directed this spoof of 1950s horror films, starring Eric McCormack as an astronomer whose body is inhabited by a benevolent alien named Urp. (Saturday and Sunday)
"Chef's Special": This Spanish comedy, directed by Nacho Velilla, is about a cook who abandons his dreams of being a top chef so he can manage a barrio eatery. (Jan. 14-15)
"Mommy Is at the Hairdresser's": The title may be a bit silly, but this is a smart, touching French Canadian coming-of-age story set in 1966 about three children trying to cope when their mother leaves. Lea Pool directed it. (Jan. 15 and 17)
"The Burning Plain": The festival-closing gala features the U.S. premiere of the directorial debut of award-winning screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga ("Babel"). The generational drama stars Oscar winners Kim Basinger and Charlize Theron as a mother and daughter. (Jan. 18)
So what won't you see at Palm Springs?
"The era of films about the Middle East and Iraq -- at least on this side of the Atlantic -- has pretty much dried up," says fest director MacDonald. "What we are seeing universally both here and abroad is a focus on issues like the conflicts in Africa and films dealing with the environment -- both documentaries and features."
Palm Springs International Film Festival
Where: Various venues in Palm Springs
When: Today through Jan. 19
Price: $11 for most screenings, $10 for matinees, $50 for the opening and closing galas, $350 for the black-tie award gala.